Online Food Advertising to Kids Another Venue to Market Junk Food; Report Highlights Worrying Internet Trend

Article excerpt

These days, kids who get bored with merely watching Chester the Cheetah in television commercials can turn on the computer, log on to the Cheetos Web site, sign up to be one of the mascot's "cheesy secret agents" and then play games to earn points and prizes. And if they don't like Cheetos, they can have similar experiences on the Web sites of almost any snack food, candy or soda.

In fact, 85 percent of the top food brands that target children through television advertising also have Web sites that market to children, a report released in July by the Kaiser Family Foundation found.

The findings are concerning given that corporate-sponsored sites primarily market foods and beverages high in calories, fat and sugar at a time when more than 9 million young people ages 6 to 19 are overweight and at a greater risk for heart disease, diabetes and some cancers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The report, which is reportedly the first comprehensive study of online food advertising to kids, also emphasized that the Internet is a rapidly-growing medium that offers extensive methods of interaction.

"The nature of the exposure that the children see on these Web sites is very different from passive 30-second commercials," Elizabeth Moore, PhD, associate professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame and author of the report, said during a news conference in Washington, D.C. "It is by definition an interactive process. It is much more in-depth, engaging and involving (than television)."

The study examined the marketing methods used on 77 children's food and beverage Web sites, finding that sites are using new ways to reach children, often disguising their efforts with games or competitions.

Advergaming--online games featuring a company's product or brand characters--was included in 73 percent of the Web sites. For example, on , visitors can earn points by "bopping" Nestle Push-up Frozen Treats to advance to different levels.

Viral marketing, a new technique where consumers market to one another via the Internet, was found on 64 percent of the sites. The sites encouraged children to send their friends invitations, greeting cards and birthday wishes through e-mails that display product names and characters.

More than half of the sites--53 percent--also included television commercials available for viewing online, while incentives for product purchases were included on 38 percent of the sites. On the site for Bubble Tape, kids are encouraged to enter codes found on chewing gum packages and get free Nintendo game tips.

Web sites also offered opportunities for children to register to become members, customize their own personal pages and print out branded items like coloring pages, door hangers and calendars.

Such techniques are dangerous in light of the country's growing childhood obesity problem, the report found.

"(Online advertising) is a double-whammy ... it not only promotes food intake, but also promotes inactivity," said William Dietz, MD, PhD, director of the Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity at CDC, who was invited to speak at the news conference.

Dale Kunkel, PhD, communications professor at the University of Arizona, added that the food intake the sites promote is especially detrimental.

"You just can't find advertising for really healthy food products to children," Kunkel said at the conference. "The food industry needs to be a part of the solution ... there should be a balance in the foods advertised to children."

The real danger of such heavy marketing is that sweetened cereals, candies, snacks, carbonated beverages and fast food comprise approximately half of all advertisements aimed at children, according to "Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?" a 2006 report from the Institute of Medicine. …